Christmas is known as a Christian festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ on the 25th of December. However, nowhere in the bible does it state anything about this particular date and so many have suspected that the origins of this loved tradition is that of Saturnalia. Saturnalia is an ancient Roman festival that celebrated the god Saturn, who was the god of wealth, liberation and plenty. It was celebrated on the 17th of December of the Julian calendar, but was spread across a length between three to seven days. This festival included a delicious banquet, partying, a false king – Saturnalicius princeps – and the gift-giving often associated with Christmas, but on the darker side also included human sacrifice. The poet Catullus even labelled the festival as “the best of days.”

 

On the lighter side, the festival had a variety of traditions and activities such as role reversal between masters and slaves. As this festival took place largely in the 1700s, many sources differ with what they suggest happened, whether the masters served the slaves their food, the slaves ate before the masters or they dined together. However, what is known is that the slaves were definitely treated to the banquet. Further role reversal took place during Saturnalia as slaves were allowed to disrespect their masters in correlation with Saturn being the God of liberation and were permitted to wear the pilleus – translated to “Freedom Hat”). On a more controversial side, gambling including the use of dice which was usually frowned upon in Ancient Rome became an annual part of Saturnalia. However, despite the controversy surrounding the gambling, coins and nuts were used as the stakes. 

 

On the darker side, human offerings and sacrifices had been suggested by sources to be a large part of the festival due to Saturn’s consort Lua who was a goddess that soldiers sacrificed enemy weapons in honour of. However, sometimes instead of the sacrifice of weapons, dead gladiators were used around Saturnalia against the beliefs of Christian apologists.